The second chapter of my epic fantasy novel.
|The moon rose late that Midsummer’s Eve. Peasants cutting the hay returned home to their beds, leaving the field edges and thickets to become the haunts of faerie troops celebrating the solstice. High above them, overlooking the tremulous waters of Loch Fyne, the castle of Tullochgorm frowned from arrow slit eyes. Some remained lit, casting silver slivers of light across the water.
A poor drudge of eleven, freshly sent from one of the crofts to work at the castle, struggled through tidying away the remains of the banquet, her eyes bleary. A page boy searched for the missing gauntlet that his master needed for the morrow’s hunt. An elderly widow forced her aching bones on, for she must earn enough to buy a few crusts from her spinning.
Finally, for a few short hours, silence fell.
Moonlight slunk like a silent watchman through the castle window, beckoning. It revealed an offering of fresh cream and lightly baked bread placed at the foot of a flight of stairs. A few paces away was a hole left in the wainscoting where a knot of wood had come away.
Golden hair flickered in the moonlight as a brownies peeped out. With her whiskers and pointed ears set at right angles to her face, Aira might have been mistaken for a mouse by any passing human.
‘Is it safe to step outside?’ Aira’s stepmother, Gretchen, asked. Gretchen had a thin nose and lips countered by large, warm brown eyes and a complexion mottled with freckles.
Though young and quick of hearing, Aira was reluctant to answer. On the verge of becoming a young woman, Aira was of an age when she needed to learn to tell if it was safe to enter the castle unnoticed by humans. She still found this hard to judge. Adding to her uncertainty was the pressure that the safety of her clan rested on her response. She was acutely aware that the eyes of a score of other brownies were upon her.
‘I’m not sure this time. What do you think?’ Aira appealed to her father, Airen, for guidance.
‘The humans have been long asleep, lass.’ Airen jumped out of the elf knot, a quick grace in his movements.
Airen’s reddish gold hair kindled like burnished copper when illuminated by the fire in his forge in the brownie village that they left behind half a mile from the faerie door into the castle. He often made nails, letter openers, knives and other useful implements for humans. Airen made an ideal metal worker for the humans since years of living alongside them had built up the resistance of brownies to iron, which burns most faeries. However, Airen preferred to be considered a swordsmith. He was renowned for his fine work amongst the faerie kingdoms of those parts. His weapons sold quickly at the monthly fey markets, to which he headed this night.
The swords that Airen made, Aira was sure, rivalled the great blades wielded by the heroes of old who Airen told her of as she helped him in the forge by fetching tools and tending the fire. Aira would rather be there than anywhere else, even when the sun shone, or her dinner was on the table. The legends he told her of their ancestors inspired her, bringing a light and hope to their lives as refugees from the brownie stronghold of Velmoran. Once there had been brownie kings, noble and just, who fought for what was right. As Airen spoke of these times, such a light came into his eyes. He seemed to see another, brighter world in the flames of his furnace.
Though Airen’s eyes readily sparked into a merry twinkle, he had a wistfulness about him. He understood sorrow only too well, having lost his beloved wife, Freya, soon after they arrived at Tullochgorm.
The memory of how Freya had died traumatically when she had miscarried Aira’s stillborn brother still haunted Aira. Fortunately Airen had the forethought to take a new wife to help him care for Aira. Aira adored her stepmother, Gretchen, a kindly spinster of middling years.
Airen’s pack of metalwork clanked on his shoulders as he turned to bid Aira farewell. ‘I’ll be on my way. I can’t believe you’re 424 years old tomorrow, my dearie. Almost too old to call a bairn now. I promise I’ll hurry back as soon as I may.’
‘Perhaps once you’re back we can go and pick some of the pretty flowers in the hedgerows? The meadows look so jolly in summer,’ Aira said.
Airen shook his head. ‘You never want for much by way of birthday gifts, lass.’
Airen assumed his true height; a little under three foot, to better help him scurry down the stairs. All brownies shared this ability to magically alter height. It was essential to help them go about their tasks unnoticed by humans. Although in the faerie world Aira was perfectly sized, in the world of humans she felt tiny. Even standing at her full height of two foot six she was dwarfed by the castle hunting hounds.
The hounds were not the only things that Aira had to be careful to avoid in the human world. Humans had once persecuted faeries nearly to extinction. The faeries used their remaining magic to create a parallel world touching the human lands yet hidden from them except for a few special spots like the elf knot in Tullochgorm Castle.
The brownies went to the Great Hall to strew fragrant lady’s mantle sprigs amongst the rushes on the floor to freshen the air. They tiptoed carefully to avoid awakening the servants who slumbered there. Then the coppers needed polishing in the kitchen. The cook was astounded how well they kept their shine due to the secret diligence of the brownies.
‘It was laundry day for the humans yesterday. There will be plenty of linen needing folding and putting away,’ said Maggie Moloch, one of the older brownies who was so stooped that her parsnip shaped chin was almost on the floor.
‘I’ll help gladly. I promise I’ll try to fold the cloths neatly and not trip over them again,’ Aira offered. She was keen to perfect the technique of folding the heavy tablecloths and sheets, which she struggled with.
Gretchen, Maggie and Aira each seized a corner of one of the cloths. They set to work, pulling their edges together in what seemed like the steps of a dance.
Aira fetched the next table cloth from the top of the pile. A hand burst from the laundry basket, grabbing her wrist. Aira screamed.
Gretchen ran to her aid, holding a peg bag poised to strike Aira’s attacker. She froze. Aira blinked, puzzlement overcoming her fear. The stowaway was an unfamiliar brownie and nearly a mirror image of Maggie, except that this brownie looked worn to a thread as her work-worn fingers slid from Aira’s wrist.
‘How did you get in the washing basket?’ Aira asked, getting her shaky breathing under control.
Maggie flung her arms around the stranger. ‘It’s all right, Aira. This is my sister Meg Mullach.’
‘Sorry, I think we both scared each other.’ Aira offered Meg her hand and helped her out of the laundry basket. Meg was so weak that her knees almost gave way as she stepped out.
‘Deary me, whatever’s happened?’ Gretchen asked.
‘Here, have some of the bread and cream the humans left for us. You look famished,’ Aira entreated Meg with a concerned smile, handing Meg her own meal without a second thought.
‘I can’t believe that more of our clan have survived the attack on Velmoran,’ Meg said.
‘It's lovely to know that more of our clan got free. I hate Krysila for destroying Velmoran. All for what? She may have seen the fruit of the Tree of Life as a great treasure but the immortality it grants is nothing compared to living a peaceful life in freedom,’ Aira said vehemently. Seeing Meg looking so anxious awoke Aira’s sorrow over the scattered and broken existence that the brownies lived since Velmoran was lost.
‘Perhaps those times will come again? King Mazgrim has been leading us to find a new home where we can be free of our endless years of servitude under the ungrateful humans,’ Meg said.
‘Have King Mazgrim’s sons survived? What of Boroden?’ Aira both wished and feared to hear Meg’s reply.
Aira clapped her hands in delight, too overjoyed to notice Meg’s reserved tone. As a child she had spent many happy hours in the gardens about the palace of Velmoran playing with her friend Prince Boroden. Each day she thought of Boroden and prayed that he had survived.
‘Could you take me to him?’ Aira asked. Yet amongst her eagerness wariness arose. Her father had long feared to meet with any of King Mazgrim’s companions.
Meg tightened her lips sorrowfully. ‘I don’t think so. Boroden’s in grave danger. Hobyahs under Krysila’s orders have been searching for us ever since we fled Velmoran. A scout spotted them on our trail the same day that a sídhe king found our camp. King Midhir threatened that we must move on or else become his slaves.’
Aira and Gretchen cast each other knowing looks, having the misfortune to know Midhir themselves.
‘I’m sorry you ran into him, Meg. How did you manage to get away and come to find us?’ Aira asked.
‘One of Midhir’s knights mentioned to him that perhaps the brownies that work in Tullochgorm Castle invited Mazgrim to his lands. I couldn’t believe it when I overheard the knight say that you were the village matriarch, Maggie. I almost got sprung upon by the hobyahs on my way here and had to travel by day when humans were about. I used my last drops of precious glamour ointment to make myself invisible to them. In desperation I hid in a basket of clean linen that a maid was carrying into the castle. It’s not safe for you here after Mazgrim has put Midhir in such a rage.’
Aira squeezed Gretchen’s hand, trying to comfort her stepmother in her shock. She only had to look at Gretchen’s blanched face to see that she too worried for Airen. Not only might he run into hobyahs and a furious Midhir but if Mazgrim discovered him he would be branded a traitor by his own kind.
‘Where else would we go?’ Maggie fretted. ‘Meg, I’m sure that Midhir wouldn’t want to lose the tithe payments we give him. Midhir is hungry for riches and demands payment in gold. Fortunately we pay him easily, for the metalwork sold by Aira’s father is worth its weight in the finest faerie gold. Airen should come back laden with riches after selling his wares at the market tonight.’
Meg clutched Aira’s arm so hard that it hurt. ‘You father’s gone to the market at Midhir’s palace?’
‘Yes.’ Aira’s voice trembled as she saw the concern etched in Meg’s face. ‘You think he’s in danger there?’
Meg nodded. ‘If Midhir even allows the market to go ahead what with the trouble brewing between our clan and the hobyahs.’
‘Then he’ll not come back with any gold? We’ll be ruined.’ Maggie crumpled back against the laundry basket, aghast.
‘I need to warn him,’ Aira gasped out. Some sixth sense told her that her father was in danger. Although the thought of heading into peril appalled her she would never forgive herself if she stood by whilst Airen got hurt.
‘Aira, please. It’s too dangerous to go to Midhir’s lands. I didn’t come all this way to warn you only for you to get killed. You’re so young. I’m sure your father wouldn’t want anything to happen to you,’ Meg pleaded.
Aira began to protest but Maggie stared her down, her hands on her hips. ‘Aira, no. As matriarch of our village I forbid you or any others to go. If we give Midhir any reason to suspect we’re involved with King Mazgrim then it’ll be the worse for us. I’m sorry but your father will just have to fend for himself.’
Aira quaked, fighting back tears. Although she was never one to get into an argument, she felt a sudden urge to defy Maggie and tear out of the castle to the faerie portal that led to Midhir’s realm.
‘Come and help me restock the medicine chest of the castle apothecary. He’s quite run out of woundwort,’ Gretchen told Aira gently. Aira’s heart leapt. Clumps of woundwort grew near the portal to the faerie market. Did Gretchen mean to use collecting the herb as an excuse for them to go there and search for Airen?
Once they were out of earshot of the other brownies in the pungently herbal smelling cupboard of the apothecary, Gretchen turned to Aira. ‘Maggie’s right that going into Midhir’s lands is risky but I don’t feel easy about your father. If he manages to make it back to the portal there will be more trouble. It’s almost dawn and he’s got no glamour with him. There’s a chance the humans might capture him and do all manner of evil things.’
‘Then the least we can do is take him some glamour to give him the protection of invisibility if a human does chance to see him. We’ll take some ourselves so they shan’t spot us.’ Aira motioned Gretchen to give her the valuable vial of glamour.
‘What about Maggie forbidding us to go? I’ll head off home and if Maggie calls I’ll say that you’re feeling too worried about Airen to see her. Aira, promise me that you’ll wait for him by the portal and not leave the human world.’
Aira had thought of going to the market to find Airen but Gretchen’s desperate plea brought her to her senses. She had other loved ones to think of besides her father. ‘I promise. I know the meadows near the castle well and I’m quick on my feet.’
Gretchen hugged her. ‘I’m proud of you, lass. Now go quick before the humans stir. Your father should be returning by now, whether Midhir held the market or no.’
As Aira slipped out of the castle, dawn light was beginning to burnish the waters of Loch Fyne. Soon farm workers would be about, making the most of the long hours of high summer.
Finding the entrance to the sídhe kingdom deserted, Aira lingered. She collected some regal maroon flower spikes of woundwort and stowed them in the basket that she had taken to give herself the excuse of heading out to pick herbs if Maggie or another of the brownies spotted her. The pungent aroma of the snapped stems of the woundwort filled the air. Their soft, bristly leaves brushed Aira’s arms, for her sleeves were still rolled up from doing her chores.
Dewdrops bejewelled the grass, sparkling with rainbows. The sun peered eagerly above the castle. Soon the grass began to steam in the heat of the sun. Aira kept close to the trees, avoiding the clumsy hoofs of cows and a yawning dairymaid. There was no sign of Airen and soon it would be too dangerous for him to return to the human world that day.